Bangkok is consistently rated one of the world’s most popular cities for travelers and has long been a mainstay on the SE Asian travel circuit. Vibrant traditional old communities bump up against gleaming new skyscrapers, the street-food dazzles, Michelin-starred restaurants abound, and the infamous Red Bull tank-tops are for sale street-side. Bangkok’s got a lot to experience and then some. On this episode of Talk Travel Asia we’ll chat about how the City of Angels has changed over our nearly 20 years living here, sometimes for the better and others for the worse.
Trevor talks about when he moved to Bangkok, why he did so, and his initial impressions of the city.
Scott talks about when he moved to Bangkok, why he did so, and his initial impressions of the city.
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Today we’re going to hone-in on how Bangkok has evolved in our eyes over nearly 20 years and where we think it will be in another 10.
The Starbucks Barometer
Trevor: I think it was pre-Starbucks when I first moved to Bangkok. I remember it was impossible to get a good cup of coffee. Nowadays there are little coffee kiosks everywhere, but back then it was pretty much only Nescafe. Now they even have nitro coffee. Which reminds me: while I can’t remember my friend’s coffee cart name off the top of my head, I’m going to put a lot of links in the shownotes to where people can find our “Bangkok now” recommendations (If you’re reading this, I’m sorry: Email us and I’ll give you these tips personally! TalkTravelAsia@gmail.com).
Scott: Only a couple Starbucks, and lots of Nescafe! I traveled a lot to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand and I concur – getting a ‘real’ cup of coffee was super tough and now coffee shops are seemingly everywhere.
Trevor: Yeah the nightlife was interesting. Well, when I first moved to Bangkok there were 24-hour party hours. But it was early internet days so Google Maps didn’t exist yet, and there was no BKK or Guru, Metro Magazine run by past guest Philip Cornwel-Smith was it and maybe the Big Chili. So when you went out you needed plan A, B, and C. Someone had heard of a place in some neighborhood and if you couldn’t find it you needed to move onto plan B. Brown Sugar and the bars around Sanam Luang park including Admakers were pretty hot. Otherwise, there were a few hotel bars worth hanging out it, but the scene was way more underground.
Scott: It’s interesting to note how the hours changed. You could drink almost anytime, anywhere. But then in the early 2000s, Taksin’s government when on a morality campaign, reduced operating hours for bars, did lots of raids and introduced the super-stupid, that still stands to this day, not alcohol sales between midnight – 11am and 2pm-5pm. WTF?!?! Streetside bars and VW van bars were fun. Not many left but a few. Cheap Charlies has moved to On Nut, Check Inn 99 to Soi 31, Woodstock is gone. Beer gardens in the cool season (end Dec – Jan) were the thing in front of all shopping malls. There are a few but for the most part that seems to have dried up!
Trevor: Woodstock… while we’re not on the topic of Mexican food yet…: this was one of our neighborhood bars… Even the redlight areas have changed… There was a disco called Lucifer upstairs on Patpong that was pretty fun. There were a few great nightclubs on and around Patpong, including some great gay all night discos. And then Silom soi 4 had a great club called Home and then later, Noriegas. There were some great places to go out around there. Now, it’s mostly sleazy. You need to go farther down Silom to Whiteline and Maggie Choos now, which are pretty cool though. Perhaps there are more live music bars too?
Trevor: As for beer, strangely in those early years there were a number of brewpubs: Tony’s, Paulaner, Tawandaeng of course, and there was a good black lager you could occasionally find calle Black Tiger, but maybe that was 17 or so years ago. 15 years ago yeah Londoner and Tawandaeng german brewery were about the only beer joints in town.
Scott: It was pretty much SE Asian lagers that I saw (and could afford). Chang, Singh, Tiger, and a few others. I remember a pint of Guinness being 250B or so and thinking that was an insane price to pay. There really weren’t many sophisticated places to have a beer. There were a handful of British or Irish pubs but that was about it. In fact, Molly Malone’s/Irish Exchange/OTHER NAME that was on the corner of Silom/Sala Daeng closed in 2018 after more than 20 years. Times are a changin!
Trevor/Scott: talk about beer drinking scene and cocktail scene now
Scott: Now, thanks in large part to Beervana, there’s well over 100 places in Bangkok you can get craft beer. I think someone made a Google Map of this, I’ll look for and share in the shownotes. Beer Bars get a special section mention here. Central intersections like Asok had old wooden beer bars on the corner, now dominated by skyscrapers. That really was a beer bar mecca – there were big ones on each corner. Country Road I believe? It seemed like those old, wooden beer bars with people playing Connect Four were the staple. There are some left (corner of Soi 20/22) but not many.
Trevor: Yeah, a few of them moved, like Woodstock, which is now closed. Brown Sugar moved. Admakers. At least Saxophone is still going strong, around Victory Monument.
Scott: China town is getting some cool bars but I fear with the MRT opening soon that it’s going to be overcrowded down there but there’s room for expansion I guess.
Trevor: Yeah Chinatown has probably changed the most from a visitor perspective. All the bars and restaurants around Soi Nana (not the redlight nana) are a great addition to the nightlife scene.
Scott: Western breakfast not super common. There was Little Home Bakery on Thonglor for pancakes, Crepes and Co but not too many others. Now it seems there have been enough Thais educated overseas that there are all kinds of coffee shops/hipster spots to have a western morning feed.
Mexican food was scarce – there was Charlie Brown’s and Senior Pico’s. Now there’s many options: Salsa and Tacos on Sukhumvit 18, La Monita by Pholenchit, and more. Thais never really liked Mexican (heard they find it bland) but now they seem to be all over it.
Trevor: Yeah Senor Pico’s and Woodstock. The old Woodstock in Nana Plaza had the best Tex Mex. Great bar too. An oasis of sorts.
Scott: Overall, the dining scene is much more complex. You can get every cuisine you could want. I love that you can still eat for $1.5 up. There’s an explosion of Japanese and Korean joints in the last few years. Malls have pretty complex dining food courts and Emquartier with their spirial dining that goes up and up. If you like malls then you can have some damn good cheap or increasingly high-so meals.
There was more street food then – it was everywhere and has really taken a hit the last couple years. In some ways getting some of the sidewalks back is nice, but overall it is losing a part of the culture and one of the most famous tourist attractions. I also feel bad for working locals who now have to buy meals at 7-11, especially around areas like Thonglor and Ekkamai where they have outlawed street food.
Trevor: I lived on Sukhumvit soi 1. (He tells The Soupman story… and how Son of Soupman is still serving great food there to this day!)
Scott: Around Phrom Phong there is a place in the alley of Soi 37 – not bad – but not like it used to be. Even Yaowarat while great is a bit more cleaned up and a tad more orderly. But then again, if you really hunt for it, there are amazing spots out there. I don’t want to give too many away.
Trevor: Yeah it’s great that that place is still around. All the street food on Thong Lor is gone but Suk 38 is hanging in there…
Scott: Out on Ramkamhang it was great and still is, but in the downtown core they’ve cleared vendors from a lot of the sidewalks and it can be downright tough to find street food at times which is sad. It’s technically forbidden to sell it on Thonglor/Ekamai. I fear Bangkok is losing a big part of its soul and what makes it special with this one. CP conspiracy to sell ready-made meals?
Scott: When I moved here in September 1999 there was no Skytrain or MRT. It was bus, taxi, motorbike or boat if it ran where you were going. Taxis were just older Toyotas.
I took the 3B and 5B buses a lot out on Ramkamhang way back when and would catch them towards downtown along Petcheburi Road. Wow – the bus!! I also road the boat on Khlong Saen Saeb for many years – still great! More buses, or is that because I lived in the suburbs?
Skytrain started on Dec. 5, 1999 and took many years to start to get busy. In the early days of the Skytrain the areas around the then-new Skytrain stations were only just starting to develop. I remember the sidewalks in the city used to be horrible and they started rebuilding sidewalks around the skytrain stations. And yes, there used to be lots of little late night pop-up beer bars all along Sukhumvit that were gradually pushed out as the sidewalks were fixed up and fancier shops and restaurants moved in around the BTS Stations.
Nowadays if you’re across the river biking at Bang Krachow you can see the line of condos which follows the Skytrain line and the same across the river on Wong Wien Yai area. They really are doing a ton of train building and in another decade the city will be great for public transport (link to Greg’s transit map). Now they just need to get one card that works on all systems!
Trevor gives his 2-cents on this: he moved there around the 1 year anniversary of the BTS and talks about how it changed all the neighborhoods along Sukhumvit.
Scott: The biggest mall was World Trade Center – now there are tons, almost all the way from National Stadium to Phrom Phong and now moving beyond. Icon Siam is open on the other side of the river.
Trevor: I think you mean Central Chidlom. 15 years ago it was Chidlom and Emporium. I remember the first time I went to emporium and was like: oooh, fancy. I lived near Central Chidlom and that was the best mall around. And they were the first ones to have a fancy food loft, like a gourmet food court. That was, and still is, such a great place to eat in the Chidlom area.
Scott: Patpong is now about purses and such more than go-go bars, they don’t go naked, not the shocking shows of the past. Many of the street stalls are also not around but it’s crap anyway – especially along Nana area (Sukhumvit 1-15). But if you need dildos and sex toys, this is the spot. There are many more night markets around the city now with just too many to mention. And a lot of ‘floating markets’ just next to the city which is neat for visitors.
Scott: Riverside piers aren’t as traditional and cool – they have made them ‘nicer’, like something you’d find in Singapore. Starbucks and mainstream restaurants in them. The flower market/vegetable market, Pak Khlong Talad getting scaled back is another example of getting rid of a legitimate tourist attraction and makings things for the worse.
Trevor: The restaurant at Ta Tien pier is still there, yeah? But there are lots of cool places on the river now. The new Suphanigga, Err, not to mention all the bars around Charoen Krung, like Jua, Tropic City, Soul Bar, which aren’t on the river but… and Asiatique is pretty cool. I was bummed to losing Suan Lum night market on Wireless Road. Now there’s a massive One Bangkok complex being built. But Asiatique is cool for tourists too, but getting to/from is a pain with the boats and taxis who won’t use meters.
Scott: Overall numbers of tourists – when I moved here in 1999 there were about 14-million tourists and now we’re at more than 30-million annually. Places are literally getting overrun. Overtourim is becoming an issue.
Scott: More hotels – tons of them – which is good for choice. Must be the best price for a decent room of any city in the world? Eating and drinking at a proper restaurant has gotten on the same price scale as North America and maybe more.
Trevor: Yeah, Bangkok certainly isn’t as cheap as it used to be. Hotels are pretty competitive because there are so many, but not as much street food as before and not so many bars in the city where you can buy a bottle of Sangsom, cokes, and a bucket of ice (Mountain Bike on Makkasan was my fave). A night out drinking in Bangkok can be quite expensive now.
Scott talks about Icon Siam – private Skytrain link being built. A bit more art here and there – some galleries popping up a bit more, the Bangkok Art Biennale and galleries and quirky shops seemingly opening daily. Some older buildings seeing new life with opening of hip coffee shops, bars, etc, especially along Charong Krung, Talad Noi, Yaowarat, older parts of the city, which is really nice
Scott: Overall I still love this city. After exploring for nearly 20 years, I still find new alleys, old communities/restaurants to check out, but then there’s tons of new. But I do worry that in an effort to ‘modernize’ the city, in another 10 years it might become stale and a bit too much like other Asian cities.
Trevor closes out the episode rambling for a while about his thoughts on the future of Bangkok. Suggests people should read The Windup Girl: a book set in post-apocalyptic Bangkok.
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I have a special place in my heart for Bangkok as it was my first experience of an Asian city, as a major hub have now visited several times. Great place.