There’s nothing like a few drinks at a buzzy Bangkok bar after a busy week. But we’re freelance travel writers I hear you say! Yes, but we still work every day, we work hard, and we still have those particularly demanding weeks we want to forget about – the ones with too many deadlines and too many obstacles to meeting those deadlines. You know the feeling, right?
So where do we go in Bangkok when we want to unwind with a cocktail or three? Well, we don’t go to Khao San Road (our idea of hell) and we don’t head up to one of the glam rooftop bars, which, while definitely fabulous to take first-time Bangkok visitors to – the views are spectacular – aren’t the kind of places we like to drop into for a few casual drinks.
And that’s what we look for when we want to go out in Bangkok – casual bars you can spontaneously call in to and settle in for a while, without worrying about silly door policies and drink prices as sky high as the place itself.
We look for local bars, where we can meet local people – Thais or expats – with an interesting atmosphere and equally interesting music, a good wine list, and well-mixed drinks. We like places that serve premium spirits and quality wines by the glass, where the bartender knows how to make a martini and has a repertoire of creative cocktails up his sleeve.
So here they are – our personal picks of Bangkok’s best local bars. Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it a list that embraces every kind of bar you’ll find in the city – you’ll have to wait for our Hedonist’s Guide to Bangkok for that – this is simply a list of our favourites spots where we like to hang out.
Soul Food Mahanakorn
Equally as popular with Thais as expats, this hip and happening Thong Lor spot is a funky Thai restaurant with a bar, rather than a destination drinking spot. Though – with our heady martinis in hand – we keep telling owner Jarrett Wristley, that he needs to open an adjoining bar because his exotic Asian-inspired cocktails are just as enticing as his food (more on that in future posts). We love that Jarrett loves to experiment, which means there’s always a different cocktail on the food specials menu. My favourite is the lemongrass daiquiri, which reminds me of pisco sours, while Terence is a fan of Jarrett’s martinis.
www.soulfoodmahanakorn.com, 56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Soi Thong Lor), BTS Thong Lor, 02 714 7708, 5.30pm-1am
The cocktails, while good, won’t win any awards for creativity here, although I’m impartial to the tropical-flavoured Happy Monday, made with Malibu and pineapple juice, and the mojitos are very good. What we love most of all though are the easygoing locals and living-room vibe that typifies Thong Lor-Ekkamai bars like our other favourites below. The crowd is mostly Thai with some expats – arty types who work in the media and creative fields, like music, advertising and design. The music is always good, with the turntable taking centre stage next to the bar, and while the owners are musicians, anyone with a passion for music seems to be able to take control of the deck for the night.
Soi 10, Sukhimvit Soi 63 (Soi Ekamai), BTS Ekamai, 02 714 3935, 6pm-1am
My parents called them ‘conversation pieces’ – that colossal shell they picked up on the beach at Noumea that sat on the coffee table for years, the Japanese doll in a glass case my mother carted back from Tokyo – unusual souvenirs that command attention and inspire conversations. Tuba is full of these and funky retro furniture, all of which is for sale. There are two rooms, with a very cool bar and pool table in the first, which is where you should settle in if you want to make friends, and a second room with lots of cosy spots among the 1950s book cases and Art Deco drinks trollies if you’re after alone-time. Drinks are served in colossal sized glasses and goblets.
34 Soi 21/Cham Chun, Sukhumvit Soi 63 (Soi Ekamai), BTS Ekamai, 02 711 5500, 6pm-2am
Shades of Retro
Set in an old shophouse on a quiet lane near the end of Sukhumvit Soi 55, Thong Lor, this laidback bar is packed to the rafters with, yep, you guessed it, plenty of retro furniture and vintage interior décor objects. That means you’ll find plenty of those funky little conversation starters, like LPs you’re parents owned that you remember from when you were a kid, and colourful glass vases your grandma had on her mantelpiece that you would never have dreamed of buying back then but now find yourself wondering whether it will break if you put it under the plane or whether you should squeeze it in your carry-on. Hmmm…Shades of Retro has a very similar vibe to Tuba and all the usual suspects when it comes to cocktails. I like to take turns.
522/3 Soi Thararom 2 (between Soi 16 and Soi 18, opp Soi 21), Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Soi Thong Lor), BTS Thong Lor, 6pm-1am
The Iron Fairies
What I love most about this narrow, dimly lit bar – apart from its intricate, iron staircase to nowhere in the entrance – is that it takes me into another world, without being a ‘theme bar’ as such, and yet it still meets our ‘casual but cool’ criteria. A blacksmith’s shop by day where owner Ashley Sutton, a former Western Australian miner and children’s book author, produces tiny iron fairies and other metallic creatures and curios, at night the space serves as a dark gothic-like bar where you can sip drinks downstairs, eat burgers upstairs (there are a few proper tables), and, wherever you sit/stand, tap your feet to the sounds of the resident jazz band. Our only fault is with the inconsistent quality of the cocktails but the atmosphere and music still keeps bringing us back every time.
www.theironfairies.com, 394 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Soi Thong Lor), BTS Thong Lor, 08 4425 8080, 6pm-2am
This petite bar has that local laidback arty vibe I used to equate with grungy student bars in Newtown, Sydney. But before you groan, I’m talking (gulp) years ago, and I’ve no idea what they’re like now. Cool and low-key, yet not self-consciously hip, WTF (which stands for whatever you want it to mean) is ran by four friends, Thai and expat, all creative types. There’s an art gallery upstairs (one of the owners is a photographer) and a schedule of regular exhibition openings and special events, like poetry nights and pop-up thingies (a recent one ran with Soul Food; see above). Drinks are cheap and along with the usual standards there are a few interesting cocktails, such as The Orchard, a lovely potent Asian-inspired combo of gin, lychee, lemongrass, lime and soda. They also serve tapas. There’s a calendar of events on their website, so if you’re not in town for long check it as soon as you arrive.
www.wtfbangkok.com, Soi 7, Sukhumvit Soi 51, BTS Thong Lor, 02 662 6246, Tues-Sun 6pm-1am